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World Englishes, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 1–8, 2008.


Language variation and corpus linguistics
ABSTRACT: Corpus linguistics deserves serious attention from linguists and applied linguists, since it Move 1
is of direct relevance to linguistic description, language variation, lexicography, and language education. step 1
Linguists tend to be indifferent to corpora, however, as the predominant paradigm in linguistics is based
on introspective data, i.e. native speaker intuition. Research has shown that intuitions are not 100 per cent step2
reliable; the notion of ‘core’ grammar needs to be modified to accommodate the systematic differences
across registers at all linguistic levels. Moreover, what linguists perceive as significant principles of linguistic
organization may not coincide with their distribution in patterns of use. One goal of applied linguistics is
to see what correspondences can be established between the two sets, i.e. the set of underlying principles step3
of linguistic organization and the patterns of use of these principles revealed by analyses of corpora.
Regrettably, applied linguists have not embraced corpus linguistics any more enthusiastically than formal
linguists. Corpus linguistic analyses have their problems, too. This paper examines a set of data from the Move2
lexicon and grammar of world Englishes to suggest that a complete reliance on patterns of use may not
solve all the problems of language description, study of variation, language instruction, translation, and
lexicography. Furthermore, whereas analyses of corpora are effective in revealing dialect variation, they are
not of great use in accounting for diatypic variation, i.e. the permanent characteristics of users of language
and recurrent features of their language use, which are crucial for understanding human linguistic behavior.


This paper revisits issues pertaining to corpus linguistics and its application in linguistic
description, language variation, lexicography, and language education. Linguistic theory is
central to linguistic description, and in its turn, grammar is crucial in the study of language
variation and lexicography. The second-order application of linguistics in translation, language education, stylistics, and other areas draw on all of the above. It is evident that
linguists tend to be indifferent to corpora, as the predominant paradigm in linguistics,
exemplified by transformational generative grammar and its most recent incarnations, is
based on introspective data, i.e. native speaker intuition (Chomsky, 1968). Given theoretical
linguists’ goal of characterizing human linguistic ability, this is understandable. However,
the linguistic universals which formal linguists propose have to be evaluated against data
from natural languages. Practitioners in corpus linguistics point out that at the level of
characterizing the nature of a human language, intuitions are not reliable. The notion of
‘core’ grammar needs to be amended to accommodate the systematic differences across
registers at all linguistic levels (Biber et al., 1994; McEnery and Wilson, 1996). What is
true of registers is equally applicable to varieties of a language.
It is true that what linguists perceive as significant principles of linguistic organization
may not coincide with their distribution in a particular corpus or a number of corpora, and
what grammarians propose as salient patterns of a language may not be the most frequent
∗ Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 707 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana, IL, 61801,
USA. E-mail: ykachru@uiuc.edu

C 2008 The Author. Journal compilation ⃝
C 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA
02148, USA.


Yamuna Kachru

patterns in texts. But these objections do not necessarily mean that the linguist’s way of
looking at language is less valid; it simply suggests that looking at language as a system
and as a medium of communication yield two different sets of results.

One aim of applied linguistics is to see what correspondences can be established between
the two sets, i.e. the set of underlying principles of linguistic organization and the patterns
of use of these principles. Applied linguists have not paid much attention to this task;
the debate on the usefulness of corpus linguistics to applied linguistics in general and
language education in particular continues (see Seidlhofer, 2003: section 2 for a number of
view points on topics related to this debate). A detailed look at the undertaking, however,
reveals that the research involved in setting up correlations between grammatical rules
and their use in discourse and texts has many applications, especially in descriptions of
geographic and social variation, language education, translation, and lexicography, to name
just a few areas.
As regards speaker attitudes, beliefs, intentions, etc., linguists interested in pragmatics
have described some of the correspondences between linguistic structures and what they
signal in terms of the stance of the speaker/writer (e.g. Green, 1989: ch. 6). However,
these have not been exploited in applied linguistic projects. For example, Quirk et al.
(1985: 83–5) categorize both interrogative and negative sentence patterns in terms of nonassertive sentences, in contrast to assertive (declarative) sentences. The justification for
this classification is the distribution of sets of items such as the following:





Both the non-assertive and the negative forms occur in negative sentences; use of these
forms in specific contexts suggests a difference in emphasis. For example, the statement
made in utterance (2) is much stronger than that in (1):

I didn’t know anyone there.
I knew no one there.

Similarly, both some and any occur in questions, but, as Lakoff (1969) points out, the
sentence with some reflects a positive speaker attitude, whereas the one with any reveals a
negative speaker attitude. This may be illustrated with examples such as the following:

Do you want something to eat before you go to sleep?
Do you want anything to eat before you go to sleep?

In uttering (3), the speaker hopes for or expects an affirmative answer; in uttering (4), the
expectation is of a negative answer. How speakers and writers fully exploit the resources of
the grammar and vocabulary in any language is yet to be determined in any detail. Corpus
linguistics can contribute to this task if corpora are designed with such analyses in mind.
Further examples of such potentialities are discussed below.


C 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
2008 The Author. Journal compilation ⃝

Language variation and corpus linguistics


Grammatical phenomena
Concerns similar to the one discussed above can be readily exemplified at the level of
grammar. English language teaching texts simply take the underlying principles of grammar
and present them as though they reflect patterns of use. As a result, one may be faced with
a discrepancy between the prominence given to a structural pattern and its actual use as
reflected in corpora examined for occurrences of a particular grammatical construction.
A good example is the devices for postnominal modification, such as relative clauses and
prepositional modifiers: the former are discussed in grammars and teaching texts in detail,
whereas the latter are not treated in a similar manner. Should grammars and descriptions
of English devote so much more attention and space to the relative clause construction as
opposed to the prepositional modifiers? The two structures are exemplified below:

I have left the books on the table which is in the hallway.
I have left the books on the table in the hallway.

A question that should be asked is which is more frequent in a general corpus or in one
drawn from a specific genre or genres. According to Biber et al. (1994), the prepositional
postnominal modifier is the most frequent. A related question is whether the more frequent
patterns should be taught first (Biber and Reppen, 2002).
The answers to these questions depend on several factors. However, it is certain that
there are two basic conditions that have to be met before teaching texts reflect the distribution of relative clause and prepositional postnominal modification in corpora. First, the
relative clause construction is better understood than prepositional postnominal modification, and researchers interested in linguistic description and applied linguistics have to ask
themselves why this is the case, and how our understanding of prepositional postnominal
modifiers can be improved.
Our understanding of prepositions as a category has to make giant strides in order to meet
the latter goal. Although we have substantial evidence to support the claim that English
prepositions present a learning problem for most learners, there are no satisfactory texts
to teach prepositions in a systematic way. In fact, there is no comprehensive systematic
description of prepositions in English grammars. There is still less understanding of the
differences between the use of prepositions in the Inner Circle varieties (e.g. American,
Australian and British; see Quirk et al., 1985) and between Inner and Outer Circle varieties
(Baumgardner, 1996; Bautista, 1997). Some examples of variation in the use of prepositions
from Philippine English (PhE) and South Asian English (SAE) are given below:
PhE (Bautista, 1997: 56):
(7) . . . any such venture must be based from solid local base.
(8) . . . there are many at this time of the day just across this particular library . . .

SAE (Bhatia, 1996: 170; Baumgardner, 1987):
(9) The students . . . are trying to escape out from this monster of severe disorder.
(10) Pakistan has no control to influence affairs inside Afghanistan.

We need to explore the semantic, pragmatic, and discoursal factors that underlie the use
of prepositions in Englishes before such uses as those described above can be adequately
described. A satisfactory grammatical account of prepositions has to precede a better
account of the functions of prepositional postnominal modifiers.


C 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
2008 The Author. Journal compilation ⃝


Yamuna Kachru

Secondly, we have little data available to show what happens with prepositional postnominal modification, as opposed to relative clauses, in the learning context. We know,
for instance, that learners from certain language backgrounds, e.g. Arabic, Hebrew, and
Japanese, have difficulty with the relative clause construction in English (see the discussion in Schachter, 1983), but we have no comparable evidence regarding prepositional
postnominal modification. I suspect that once the data becomes available, there will be
more discussion of this phenomenon in English textbooks. Effective text material, however, will not be available until the requirement of an adequate description of prepositions
is satisfied.
Lexicographical phenomena
Examples from the level of the lexicon add significantly to our appreciation of the
task confronting applied linguistics. For instance, the adjectives hard and tough have very
similar morphological properties: they both have comparative forms, harder and tougher,
and accept the verbalizing suffix -en, harden and toughen. However, hard has an adverbial
form, hardly, but tough does not have a corresponding -ly form. They have similar meanings,
i.e. ‘resistant to pressure, robust’, and both modify human, concrete, and abstract nouns,
e.g. hard bargainer, tough boss; hard plastic, tough steak; hard decision, tough question.
This grammatical description does not, however, explain why we say hard feelings, hard
evidence, hard drugs, hard cash, on the one hand, but tough boss, tough skin, tough policies,
on the other. The collocation ∗ tough feelings is as unacceptable as ∗ hard creatures. For
societal use of language, the facts about collocations such as the above are as important as
grammatical rules, and corpora can be of immense value in assessing the collocability of
items. The responsibility of sorting out collocations motivated by the semantics of lexical
items vs. frozen idioms (e.g. kick the bucket) still remains, and requires delicate or in-depth
linguistic research.
An added complication is introduced by the fact that words mean slightly different
things to different speakers, not only across speech communities but within the same speech
community. In the case of English, we have to add the speech fellowships of world Englishes
within the wider speech community characterized as English speakers. The evidence for this
comes from research in several areas, including psychology and computational linguistics,
to name just two. Malt et al. (1999) investigated the names participants gave to real-world
objects, and found that only 2 of the 60 objects presented were given the same name by all
76 native English speaker participants in the study (1999: 242). Reiter and Sripada (2002)
report similar findings in technical language use.
In spite of these complications, there is no doubt that corpora are invaluable in lexicographical research, as has been shown by recent studies of lexicons in world Englishes (see
e.g. Bautista, 1997; Bautista and Butler, 2000; Butler, 1997; B. Kachru, 1973; 1980; 2006;
Pakir, 1992). And yet it is not clear how decisions regarding dictionary listing of senses of
an item are to be made − i.e. whether frequency of occurrence or a systematic semantic
analysis of the item should be assigned primacy in listing.
This concern with basing listings on corpora analysis can be illustrated with the English lexical item certain, also discussed by Biber et al. (1994). Assuming that certain in
the sense of ‘sure’ is less frequent than in the sense of ‘indeterminate’, as in a certain
person/book, etc., in a particular corpus or a variety of corpora, does that difference in frequency mean that the indeterminate sense of certain should be listed as the ‘core’ meaning


C 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
2008 The Author. Journal compilation ⃝

Language variation and corpus linguistics


of the item? Certain in the sense of sure enters into some derivational relations (e.g. uncertain, certainty, certainly) and semantic relations (e.g. certain/uncertain/doubtful) which
it does not in the indeterminate sense. The decision may depend upon the purpose of a
particular lexicographical project. If the aim is automated computer processing of texts or
teaching English for Special Purposes, the frequency of occurrence has to be taken into
account. For linguistic description, however, the systematic semantic analysis of the item
will probably take precedence.
Another perspective on dictionary listing can be illustrated with the item back. Biber
et al. (1994) show that the use of back in the sense of body part is much rarer than its use
as an adverbial, adjective, or verb, which would suggest that the primary meaning of the
item is not a body part. However, it is straightforward to argue that back designating a body
part has something to do with its use as an adverbial, an adjective, and a verb. It would
be a pity not to let language learners discover how arbitrary signs such as back become
non-arbitrary in expressions such as come back, the back door, back to the wall, and to
back into the wall. As Bolinger says (1980: 24), ‘The distinction between the arbitrary and
the suggestive is ultimately groundless.’
One other point has to be noted in this regard. As Sampson (1989) has cautioned, existing
dictionary listings often exhibit biases against several categories of lexical items, including even common scientific-technical terminologies, negatives, and hyphenated items. In
dictionaries of Outer Circle Englishes, specialized vocabularies related to administration,
fine arts, law, revenue, sociocultural institutions, etc. are a crucial part of the language of
newspapers and other publications. For instance, all early lexicographical compilations in
English as used in India were of specialized vocabulary that the British needed to administer the region (see B. Kachru, 2006). Regardless of frequency in a general corpus, items
of local importance, technical or not, have to be listed in dictionaries for the dictionaries
to be useful to a wide variety of users.

It has been suggested that a satisfactory descriptive model to account for language
variation must distinguish between dialectal variety differentiation and diatypic variation
(Oostdijk, 1988). That is, the model must account for permanent characteristics of the users
of the language, such as their location in space and time, gender, age, social status, etc., and
the recurrent characteristics of the use of language by users, such as field, tenor, and mode
of discourse. This is more easily said than done, as is clear to many practitioners in the field
of sociolinguistics. It has been impossible to locate any research on such basic features as
floor, turn-taking, interruptions, or agreement/disagreement in face-to-face interaction in
South or Southeast Asian languages, e.g. in Hindi or Filipino, or the varieties of English
used by speakers of these languages (see, however, Valentine, 1995). We need good corpora
of spoken material and teams of researchers working on analyses before diatypic variation
can be better understood.
Corpus-based research has produced some expected and some unexpected but revealing
results in the areas of variation in the use of grammatical and lexical devices. For instance,
Collins (1991) focuses on a select subset of modals, those of obligation and necessity,
e.g. must, should, ought, need and have (got) to, and explores their behavior in Australian
English (AusE) as compared to American (AmE) and British English (BrE). Each of
these modals has two primary meanings: epistemic, signaling the speaker’s certainty and


C 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
2008 The Author. Journal compilation ⃝


Yamuna Kachru

suppositions, and root, indicating obligation, compulsion, or requirement. In their epistemic
meanings, must and have (got) to express a greater degree of conviction than should and
ought. The item have (got) to is the main exponent of root obligation in informal speech
in AusE (Collins, 1991: 153). Whereas Quirk et al. (1985: 225) claim that must does not
have a negative form (the form can’t takes the place of mustn’t), the Australian corpus
contains examples of epistemic mustn’t in conversational data identical to the number of
occurrences of epistemic can’t, with which it is semantically parallel. Since mustn’t does
not occur in written data in Australian corpus, Collins observes: ‘Given that linguistic
change typically originates in casual spoken genres before spreading to more formal and
conservative genres, this distributional pattern suggests that mustn’t is fairly recent in
origin’ (1991: 156). It is not surprising that change in context of language use leads to
change in language; it is a well-known historical linguistic process, which can be captured
by analyses of spoken language corpora.
Current research findings suggest that the corpus-based approach will be effective in
coming to grips with dialect and variety differentiation and will deepen our understanding
of register and genre variation (see for discussions Aijmer and Stenstr¨om, 2004; Biber,
2006; Biber et al., 1998; Biber and Burges, 2000; Conrad and Biber, 2000; and McEnery
and Wilson, 1996, among others). However, corpus-based approaches may not meet with
the same degree of success in dealing with diatypic variation (Meyer 2002: 17–20). Most
difficult to deal with may be tenor, or interpersonal dynamics of discourse, mainly because
the various moves in interaction are negotiated as conversations proceed. Further, it is hard
to imagine how a corpus-based approach would deal with discourse-based phenomena as
opposed to text-based ones. For example, it is not clear how the phenomena of speaker
attitudes, beliefs and intentions discussed above in the context of non-assertive and negative
forms of determiners such as some, any and no can be dealt with in any corpus-based
There have been some attempts to bring ‘subjective’ language within the domain of
corpus-based research (Wiebe et al., 2004). ‘Subjectivity’ in this context refers to aspects
of language used to express opinions, evaluations, and speculations. Wiebe et al. describe
studies in which clues of subjectivity are generated from different data sets and tested
against other data sets, including low-frequency words (e.g. monochromatic), collocations
(e.g. arduous and raucous), adjectives (e.g. fascinating, odious), and verbs (e.g. stand in
awe). Density of subjectivity clues in surrounding context strongly affects the likelihood of a
word’s being used subjectively. Such analyses of data may enable researchers to characterize
texts as opinion texts and identify subjective discourse segments in texts which in their
entirety may not be opinion texts. Even so, this approach may not be applicable to ongoing
conversations, debates, negotiations, etc., which need interpretation by a human participant.
However, the methodology may be used to sensitize language learners to the phenomenon
of subjective language.

In all the areas that have been tackled so far, corpus-based linguistic research is as
good as the corpora on which it is based, and grammatical or lexical analyses of corpora
are as good as the analytical tools, such as grammatical tags or concordances, which are
developed to analyze them (Knowles et al., 1996). Furthermore, only limited attempts
have been made to carry out semantic and pragmatic analyses and analyses that take into


C 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
2008 The Author. Journal compilation ⃝

Language variation and corpus linguistics


account sociolinguistic factors. There is plenty of scope for interaction between theoretical
linguistics, grammatical description, applied research, and corpus linguistic research.
1. I am grateful to Braj Kachru and Cecil L. Nelson for commenting on an earlier version of this paper.

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(Received 1 October 2007.)


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2008 The Author. Journal compilation ⃝

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